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Farewell, Marc Pachter

The following dispatches and quotes about the late beloved Marc Pachter are posted here on my Writers and Editors blog partly to make it easy for Marc's friends and colleagues to post comments. Marc died after a yearlong celebration of his 80th birthday, filled with travels to his favorite people, haunts, and cultural hotspots in Asia, Europe, South America, and the United States.


You can watch the Memorial service for Marc Pachter, April 13, 2024 (video online), held at the National Portrait Gallery. 


Marc Pachter, Who Revived National Portrait Gallery, Dies at 80 (Sam Roberts, NY Times, 2-23-24)
     Marc Pachter, who transformed the National Portrait Gallery in Washington from a collection primarily of solemn paintings of old white men into a more up-to-date museum that now includes illustrations and interviews with diverse living luminaries, died on Feb. 17 in Bangkok. He was 80.
     The cause was cardiac arrest, his son, Adam, said. Mr. Pachter, who [after many years of living in Washington DC] lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, died in a hospital while vacationing in Thailand.
     As director of the Portrait Gallery from 2000 to 2007, Mr. Pachter presided over a $300 million renovation that reimagined the museum while maintaining its artistic integrity.

     A memorial service was held at the National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 13, at 9 am in the Kugod Courtyard (at 8th and G Streets NW, DC).

     It was a beautiful day in a beautiful setting, and it was particularly nice to hear Marc's son and daughter, Adam and Gillian, talk about life with their delightfully nontraditional father.


Marc's memorable talk on the Living Self Portrait Series (Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (EG3) February, 2008)

     If you listen to nothing else, listen to this lecture. Marc started to worry about the fact that people didn't get their portraits painted anymore, so he came up with the remarkable Living Self-Portrait Series. As a cultural historian, Marc conducted live interviews with some of the most intriguing characters in recent American history as part of this series created for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.  In this talk he reveals the secret to a great interview and shares extraordinary stories of talking with Steve Martin, Clare Booth Luce and more. 

         In celebrating great American lives, Marc preferred sprawling, messy cities like LA and Berlin to beautiful self-regarding ones like SF and Paris, but these portraits were of Americans of a certain age (60s thru 90s), the idea being to sit at the feet of people who "know how the story turned out. It's amazing what people will say when they know how the story turns out."  Marc  is particularly interesting on how to do interviews that are different--that are empathic, that feel like what people want to say.  He talks about qualities in the interview subject that made them more interesting (or boring) and about what his best and worst moments were in creating the series.  In a sense, this is also a living portrait of Marc.

       This is also available as The art of the interview (Marc Pachter, video with transcript, listed withTed Talks, January 2008)

        Marc is profiled here as a cultural historian.

Marc Pachter: Remembering a Mentor and Friend (Gordon H. "Nick" Mueller, President & CEO Emeritus of The National World War II Museum, 2-23-24) Mueller mourns the loss of friend and colleague Marc Pachter. "A talent in the museum world such as Marc comes along only once in a generation. His passion for history, art, and culture were unmatched, and his exuberance was highly infectious. Mueller writes about Marc's contributions to the museum world.

Marc Pachter, museum chief who led race to save Washington portrait, dies at 80 - The Washington Post
"Marc Pachter, an American cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution who as director of the National Portrait Gallery led a nail-biting scramble for donors in 2001 that kept a famed painting of George Washington from leaving the collection for possible auction, died Feb. 17 in Bangkok. He was 80. He had a heart attack at an apartment he rented during an extended stay in Thailand, said his son, Adam Pachter.
     "Mr. Pachter described himself as a “a teller of lives” in his roles across the Smithsonian system, including overseeing a top-to-bottom renovation of the Portrait Gallery as director from 2000 to 2007. As director of the National Portrait Gallery in 2001, he hunted for a donor to keep a famed painting of Washington in the collection. He found one."

In Memoriam: Marc Pachter 1943–2024 (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 2-21-24) "Marc Pachter's distinguished career at the Smithsonian spanned more than thirty-three years. In addition to being the National Portrait Gallery's director, he served as the museum’s chief historian and assistant director. Marc was the Smithsonian assistant secretary for external affairs, chair of the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary celebration in 1996, and acting director of the National Museum of American History." And more, about his career with the Smithsonian.

Q&A with Marc Pachter (C-SPAN, 12-12-07, 58 minutes) A fascinating Q&A. Marc Pachter talked with Brian Lamb about his work at the National Portrait Gallery and the operations of the Smithsonian Institution. He retired in 2007 after 33 years at the Smithsonian, where he served as chief historian and assistant director at the Portrait Gallery, acting director of the National Museum of American History, as well as deputy assistant secretary for external affairs and chair of the Smithsonian's 150th anniversary celebration in 1996.

     Asked about being interviewed: "Well, I just told my son, Adam, that it's the first time I've ever been nervous on stage. It's because, when you're the interviewer, you're in control of the situation and when you're being interviewed, suddenly I realize, or whether you're being portrayed in a portrait or written about in a biography, somebody else is in charge of your life, so it's interesting."

    The worst quality in an interviewee, says Marc: Modesty.

    About his education: 'Berkeley made me lucid.'

    His ex-wife Lisa put his finger on why they never loved Washington DC: "It lacks a sense of healing irony. This is a very literal place." But the opportunities it gave him he would forever be grateful for.

---See Additional C-SPAN interviews with Marc.

“History Is A Construct. A Lot Happened, But What Do We Remember From It?” (Heather Jaber and Nicole Bogart, Salzburg Global News, 1-29-18) As a historian and former museum director of the National Portrait Gallery, Marc Pachter was tasked with signifying achievement in American culture. “This used to be very easy… White men on horses, usually generals or Presidents,” he explains.

     “True history began with thinking of race and gender in general. But... the road was still stopping short of LGBT questions – also part of the reveal of what a culture really is.” During his tenure at the Gallery in Washington, DC, Pachter, a multi-time Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, "was involved in introducing the controversial HIDE/SEEK exhibition to the National Portrait Gallery in which homosexuality was depicted as a core theme in the work of many American artists. He believes national museums play an important role in signaling a growing consensus within society to discuss the history of LGBT communities. Moreover, including those exhibitions acknowledge that LGBT rights and visibility are not new issues – they have always existed in history."
---Marc Pachter on history as a construct: What do we remember from it? (YouTube video, Salzburg Global Seminar, 9-30-15) Marc Pachter in conversation with Salzburg Global LGBT Forum Chair Dr. Klaus Mueller on public readiness for using lenses of race, gender, and sexuality on history.

      As explained on the Gallery’s website, the exhibition (developed by a team under his successor), which ran from October 2010 to November 2011, was “the first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture. HIDE/SEEK considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art--especially abstraction--were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society's evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.”

      “It boils down to invisibility; history is a construct; lots happened, but what do we remember from it?” Pachter says. “And that we chose as a nation not to think about it says a lot. The history was always there… People that were not known as gay were living their lives. The nation needed to say: our history telling is incomplete. “We already knew that about race; we already knew that about women… but we needed to think this way [about queer history]. It felt both revolutionary and, happily, in the end ordinary to do this.” (Download PDF of that issue.)

Smithsonian's Veteran Man-in-the-Middle Stands His Ground (Adam Goodheart, In the Capital, NY Times, 4-24-2002)
     "The tensions at the history museum would test any acting director -- though in some ways Marc Pachter seems the perfect man for the challenge. A 28-year veteran at the institution, he was regarded as a pathfinder through the thicket of the cultural wars of the 90's. Now, his admirers say, he is a lone voice of reason drowned out in the continuing din. The question, they say, is how much any museum director, even a visionary, can accomplish amid the current tensions.
    "Mr. Pachter is, in a sense, the Smithsonian's resident philosopher -- a role that he quickly steps into when we finally reach the ruby slippers. On this afternoon, the slippers' display case is surrounded by throngs of school-age visitors. As Mr. Pachter surveys the scene with satisfaction, I ask him the type of question that the museum's detractors have long raised: isn't Judy Garland's footwear a bit trivial to be given a place of honor in a national museum?
     '' 'They're here because they're important to people,'' he answers. ''It's a touchstone to their childhood, a point of contact with the whole story of 'The Wizard of Oz' and how that came to be created. It's a way of getting them to think of history as including their own lives.'
     "Many of the Smithsonian's critics, Mr. Pachter says, talk as if the museum were faced with a stark choice between academia or Disney World. For Mr. Pachter, the best analogy for a museum's cultural role is another, perhaps slightly old-fashioned, comparison: a cathedral. It's a view he has been preaching for years in a number of well-regarded speeches and articles to the international museum world, and, possibly less effectively, to his Smithsonian colleagues. Indeed, a few days after the Reynolds gift was withdrawn, Mr. Pachter was at Oxford University to deliver a prestigious Slade lecture, a speech he titled ''The Museum as a Sacred Place in a Secular Age.'' 

      "For Mr. Pachter, such ecclesiastical comparisons don't suggest aloofness and sterility, but rather the opposite: an experience that combines both theatricality and reason, both rapture and contemplation. In other words, both Disney World and academia. It's a dualism that, he says, goes all the way back to the origins of modern museums in the 18th century."


      The tensions at the history museum would test any acting director -- though in some ways Marc Pachter seems the perfect man for the challenge. A 28-year veteran at the institution, he was regarded as a pathfinder through the thicket of the cultural wars of the 90's. Now, his admirers say, he is a lone voice of reason drowned out in the continuing din. The question, they say, is how much any museum director, even a visionary, can accomplish amid the current tensions. Mr. Pachter is, in a sense, the Smithsonian's resident philosopher -- a role that he quickly steps into when we finally reach the ruby slippers. On this afternoon, the slippers' display case is surrounded by throngs of school-age visitors.


Portrait Gallery Director to Retire in '07 (Jacqueline Trescott, Washington Post, 12-11-2006) "As director, Pachter was a key part of the team that redesigned the Portrait Gallery and refocused and expanded its view of history and art. The gallery was closed for a longer-than-expected six years for a top-to-bottom renovation; since reopening in July, it has had record crowds visiting the building it shares with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. About 30 percent of the visitors are coming after 5 p.m.; the decision to extend the museum's hours till 7 p.m. was made to fit "the vibe" of the revitalized Gallery Place neighborhood, Pachter said."

American Flâneur (Instagram) Photos and reels. (I passed, then kept flunking, Instagram's test, but maybe it will work for you.) Maybe it will come back. Maybe you need to be a member of Instagram. See also Barge rehearsal in Thailand (Reels) Scroll down for more photos of Marc.

    Good luck getting on Instagram. I routinely fail their tests for getting on, clicking on photos of buildings with stairs, etc.. They asked for my cell phone number, and after I sent it, I filled in that number and they said "Try another number. That doesn't work."

• Marc had a few words to say in 2016 about Trump’s election, by way of boosting morale.
       "This is not the first setback in our political history as a nation. It is important to remember that in a democracy there are always different views as to the direction the nation should take. Every major body of opinion gets a shot at Presidential leadership. And it's also important to remember that our system never allows a President complete authority. In fact the system is set up to frustrate authority. When the person you support has been elected you often see the limits of what he (and someday she) can do. Obama had his successes but was often blocked. The same will happen to the President-elect.
       "What we are now obligated to do is monitor the new administration and if we disagree with its policies to make our opinions known and to expect our representatives and the judiciary to reflect on these issues. The American system is not meant to be efficient or to support only one set of views. It is meant to check and balance. This is a loud, messy and very American process."

Marc Pachter (Wikipedia entry) Marc Pachter (born 1942 or 1943) is an American museum director who headed up the United States National Portrait Gallery from 2000 until 2007 and was the acting director (after coming back out of retirement) of the National Museum of American History between 2011 and 2012, both at the Smithsonian. While at the NPG Pachter played an instrumental role in acquiring the Lansdowne portrait for the...

Marc Pachter and the Washington Biography Group The Washington Biography Group was inspired by Marc Pachter, then chief historian of the National Portrait Gallery, who organized an all-day symposium on "Biography: Life As Art" at The Smithsonian Institution's Baird Auditorium. Held December 6, 1986, the symposium was attended by 325 people. Three biographers talked about their work: David McCullough, Phyllis Rose, and Marc Pachter. After the event, Marc Pachter, Judy Nelson, and others wondered if members of the audience would like to continue meeting, so Marc announced at the end of the day that those interested in meeting to discuss biography writing should send him a postcard and he would schedule a meeting. In February 1987, about 30 people attended the first meeting, at Chick and Judy Nelson's home. During the pandemic the group has met on Zoom.

     It was through the WBG that I got to know Marc. WBG survived Marc's post-retirement move to New York and his peregrinations through the world, but he always stayed in touch. He will truly be missed.

Washington Biography Group

• Marc's two books:

     Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art

     A Gallery of Presidents (National Portrait Gallery)


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